Lesson 12: Narrative

Minoan Architecture: The Palaces

  1. Common Features of Minoan Places in the Neopalatial Period
  2. The Origins of the Minoan Palatial Form
  3. Aesthetic Considerations and Planning
  4. Supplementary Observations

Common Features of Minoan Places in the Neopalatial Period

As McEnroe astutely observes, the second palace at Knossos “is a building that may encompass the breadth and depth of its culture more eloquently than any other single building in the history of European architecture.” Though by far the largest of the later palaces (surface area measured at one level: ca. 13,000 m.2; note that much of this area was covered by two or more storeys of building), Knossos is merely one example of an architectural type which is repeated in four presently known examples [also Mallia, with surface area of 7,600 m.2; Phaistos, with surface area of ca. 6,500 m.2; Zakro, with surface area of ca. 2,800 m.2]. It has been cogently argued that the central building at Gournia is a smaller scale palace, and a recently excavated structure just east of Siteia at Petras is evidently an even smaller one. Portions of what are virtually certain to be large-scale palaces have been exposed at Chania in west Crete and at Archanes just south of Knossos. In the early to middle 1990’s, much of a palace somewhat larger than that at Zakro has been cleared by G. Rethemiotakis at the site of Galatas, a little less than 20 kms. southeast of Knossos in the Pediadha Plain west of Kastelli. A large LM I building with a rectangular central court at Kommos in the Mesara appears to be yet another, albeit one whose lifetime as a palace appears to have been unusually short (only some 50 years at most). Thus this class of building is far more common than most handbooks would make it appear. It also exists on a far wider variety of scales than is conventionally admitted. The following survey of recurring features in this class of building is based upon the original set of four palaces: Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia, and Zakro.

Central Court

This is usually oriented north-south, but is aligned more northeast-southwest in the case of Zakro. At Knossos (54 x 27 m. = 1458 sq. m.), Phaistos (63 x 22.5 m. = 1417.5 sq. m.), and Mallia (48 x 23 m. = 1104 sq. m.), Graham considered this space to measure ca. 170 x 80 of his “Minoan feet” of 30.36 cms. each (or 200 x 100 of Preziosi’s “Minoan feet” of ca. 27 cms. each), at Zakro (29 x 12 m. = 348 sq. m.) ca. 100 x 40 of Graham’s “feet”. Graham has argued that the bull-leaping sports of the Minoans were conducted in the central court, but not everyone agrees. The orientation has been variously explained: to provide maximum sunlight to the colonnades bordering the central court [Lawrence, Hood]; to have the major axis pointing directly toward a sacred mountain, Iuktas at Knossos (southward) and Ida at Phaistos (northward) [Scully]; or to have the openings into the cult rooms along the west side of the central court facing toward the rising sun [Shaw].

Courts of other “court-centered” Minoan buildings that have been claimed at one time or another as “palaces” have the following measurements and areas like the above measurements, these figures are taken from AJA 102(1998) 103 n.45]: Kommos Building T: 38 x 29 m. = 1102 sq. m.; Galatas: 36 x 16 m. = 576 sq. m.; Gournia: ca. 25 x 17.5 m. = 437.5 sq. m.; Petras, phase 1: 13 x 6 m. = 78 sq. m.; Palaikastro Building 6: 10.7 x 7.3 m. = 78.1 sq. m.

West Court

A large paved area west of the main (western) palaces facade at Mallia, Phaistos, and Knossos, this feature is crisscrossed by “causeways”, pathways of cut limestone slabs carefully laid and raised slightly above the level of the cobbled court.


All four palaces are distinguished by having large areas of their ground-floor plans devoted to storage facilities. Mallia perhaps has more in the way of such storage facilities than any other palace, certainly in terms of the ratio between the area of the ground floor devoted to storage and the total area of the palace at this level. At Knossos and Mallia the main series of magazines open to the west off a long north-south corridor in the west wing of each palace. At Knossos magazines are virtually restricted to the area just inside the west facade, but at Mallia they occur inside the west facade, in the east wing, and also in the northeast quarter. At Phaistos, the major magazines run north-south on either side of a broad east-west corridor located in the west wing just south of the monumental west entrance into the palace. Major magazines do not seem to be a feature of the palace at Zakro, but there is a group of less imposing storage facilities located in the northwest corner of the palace there. At Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia, the exterior face of the west magazines constitutes the west facade of the palace, the most carefully built of all the palace facades. These west facades are characterized in plan by a stepped series of projections, each of which corresponds to a clump of magazines on the interior. Normally at or near the middle of the west facade of each such “block” of magazines is a shallow recess which, Graham has argued, marks the location of a window embrasure at the level of the second floor or “Piano Nobile” (see below). Alternating projections and recesses are also a feature of the Protopalatial retaining wall defining the northern limit of the theatral area at Phaistos, of the contemporary west facade of the palace building at that site, and of the north wall of the rectangular Protopalatial complex of 37 rooms at Kouphota (Ayia Photia) near Siteia..

Residential Quarters

In the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia, there are groups of rooms which, to judge from similarities in the plans both of the groups as a whole and of the individual rooms which make up the group, appear to represent functionally equivalent units which have come to be called “Residential Quarters”. At Knossos, perhaps the most famous of all such units is located in the southeast quarter of the palace at the foot of the Grand Staircase. At Phaistos and Mallia, the equivalent group of rooms is located in the northwest portion of the palace. There was also a second “Residential Quarters” at Phaistos to the east of the central court near its north end and it is probable that at Knossos at least two, and perhaps as many as three or four, existed one on top of the other in the palace’s southeast quadrant.

These “Residential Quarters” normally consist of: (1) a hall-forehall-lightwell combination (Graham’s “Men’s Hall”: two contiguous rooms separated by a pier-and-door partition, with a lightwell at one end and a pier-and-door partition either at the other end or along one side or both); (2) a more private room (Graham’s “Women’s Hall” linked to the hall or forehall by a corridor which is usually dog-legged; (3) a “Lustral Basin” opening directly off the private room; and frequently, (4) a toilet, again closely connected with the private room. Aside from the palaces, a number of Minoan villas and townhouses possess such groups of rooms (e.g. Ayia Triadha, the Little Palace at Knossos, and Houses Da and Za at Mallia).

Banquet Hall

Graham has argued that a particular variety of large hall furnished with eight or more internal roof supports, whether columns or piers, recurs on the second floor of the palaces at Knossos, Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakro, as well as in Tylissos House A. In all cases, this hall is located either at the north end of the central court (Mallia, Phaistos, Zakro) or at the north end of the building (Knossos, Tylissos) and is conveniently served by stairways leading to pantries and kitchens on the ground floor. It is never part of the complex of halls comprising the so-called Piano Nobile to the west of the central court. Graham has identified these isolated second-story halls as banquet rooms. Their segregation from other large and important halls on the second floor may be due to a desire on the part of the Minoans to isolate dining as a social activity or simply to restrict the odors associated with cooked food to a specific quarter of the palace far removed from halls of audience, residential apartments, and so forth. These dining facilities are routinely approached by two distinct stairways or sets of stairways, one linked with food storage and processing areas on the ground floor (“service staircase”) and the second leading up from more public spaces opening directly onto a large court (“guest staircase”, at Mallia, Phaistos, and Tylissos).

Piano Nobile (Public Apartments)

The evidence for major “halls of state” (or reception halls) on the second floor of the palaces in the west wing consists of

(1) analogies with other forms of architecture, for example the palazzi of Renaissance Italy, in which important rooms constituting the so-called “Piano Nobile” existed on the floor above ground level;

(2) broad flights of stairs at Knossos and Mallia which lead up from the central court to a level above that occupied by the magazines in the west wing;

(3) fragments of elaborately decorated plaster found fallen into the area of the west magazines at Knossos, as well as door jamb and pillar bases fallen into the same area at Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos;

(4) the fact that the blocks of magazines themselves appear to correspond to single architectural units, whether halls or large rooms, on the level of the second floor. Some of the magazine walls are thickened at regularly spaced positions to support columns or piers on the second floor which in turn supported yet another story or the roof.

At Zakro, the halls normally associated with the “Piano Nobile” appear to have been transferred to the ground floor level, where they occupy the east half of the west wing and front directly onto the central court, a position occupied in other palaces by the cult rooms which at Zakro seem to have been shifted into the west half of the west wing, available due to the absence of major blocks of magazines in this position at this particular palace.

Cult Rooms along the West Side of the Central Court

At both Knossos and Mallia, there are “pillar crypts” in ground-floor rooms west of the central court. As in the “pillar crypts” of some townhouses (e.g. South House, Southeast House, and Royal Villa at Knossos), the single or double pillars in these crypts bear incised signs (e.g. double axe, trident, star, etc.), interpreted by some archaeologists as symbols of a divinity responsible for earthquakes. The “pillar crypts” are thus considered by some as cult places in which rites designed to propitiate such a destructive divinity were conducted. Most of the area just west of the central court at Knossos, except for the stair leading up to the Piano Nobile, appears to have been taken up by cult rooms [from south to north: “pillar crypts” and associated Temple Repositories, Tripartite Shrine (restored by Evans on the basis of four column bases found in situ and the miniature Grandstand Fresco found elsewhere in the palace), and the Throne Room complex]. A somewhat similar arrangement may have existed at Mallia. Some of the odd rooms along the west side of Phaistos’ central court may also have served religious functions. There certainly appear to have been rooms in which cult paraphernalia was stored west of the central court at Zakro, but these lie in positions which at Knossos and Mallia would have been occupied by magazines (see above).

Guest Room Suites

At Knossos, these subsidiary domestic suites lie south of the “Residential Quarters” at the very southeast corner of the palace. At Phaistos, two groups of such rooms (16, 20, 21; 17-19), both of which include “Lustral Basins”, occur near the palace’s southwest corner. At Mallia, a possible group of such rooms exists at the southwest corner of the palace between the grain silos and the main south entrance to the palace. Finally, at Zakro a group of such rooms west of the south end of the west wing could only be entered from the south, that is from outside of the palace proper.

Theatral Area

Although the function of such shallowly stepped areas is uncertain, they are usually considered to be accommodations for a standing, or less probably a seated, audience. Possible social contexts for the assembling of such audiences include attending political gatherings, witnessing religious ceremonies [sacred dances? bull-jumping, assuming this had a religious function?], or simply being entertained [again by dancing and/or bull-jumping, if these were in fact secular activities, and possibly by boxing and wrestling as well]. At Knossos, the theatral area is located at the northwest corner of the palace. The steps of it which run east-west and lead down to the north were constructed in MM I. The steps running north-south to the east of this first series, as well as the so-called “Royal Box” built in the angle between the two series, were added in MM IIIA at the beginning of the Neopalatial period. At Phaistos, the theatral area lies at the north end of the middle west court and constitutes the division between the middle and uppermost levels of the west court at this site. The original theatral area here was largely buried during the period of the later palace when the west facade of the palace building was shifted eastward and the original west court was buried under several feet of debris capped by a plastered pavement. Probably to compensate for this reduction in the space devoted to the theatral area, a new, eastern extension of it was added, oriented perpendicularly to the Protopalatial steps and doubling in function as an entryway into the Neopalatial palace. The theatral areas at Phaistos and Knossos are thus both converted into L-shaped constructions, similar in their plans to the contemporary but much smaller theatral area at the north end of Gournia’s “public court” (see handout on LM non-palatial architecture). At Mallia, no unmistakable theatral area survives, but sets of three or four broad steps with low risers are probably to be restored around three or all four sides of the so-called “Agora” to the northwest of the palace proper, on top of the broad rubble foundations that ring this space. There is no obvious theatral area at Zakro.

Grain Silos (“Kouloures”)

The function of these arge, semisubterranean cylindrical structures built of rubble and ordinarily unplastered on the interior, is uncertain during their heyday in the Protopalatial period (see handout on Middle Minoan Crete). At Knossos, three are preserved in an east-west row in the southern part of the west court. Built over MM IA houses, they were filled in with debris from the destruction of the Old Palace. At Phaistos, four are preserved in much the same location as at Knossos and again they belong to the Old Palace period only. At Mallia, a series of eight rather shallow kouloures in two rows of four, several preserving a base at the center to support a raised floor which would have helped to keep dry the grain they probably once contained, are located in a walled enclosure set into a recess between the west court and the west facade of the palace at its southern end. These last were in use during the Neopalatial era, although their date of construction is uncertain.

A striking feature of these monumental cylinders is their placement in every instance in front of the principal facade of the palace. This fact suggests that, in addition to whatever practical importance they had, they also had considerable symbolic significance. The EM III hypogeum below the south front of the later palace at Knossos should probably be viewed as the earliest in a long series of such monumental cylindrical constructions at palatial sites.

The Origins of the Minoan Palatial Form

Graham in 1962 enunciated three potential explanations for the relatively sudden appearance of an evidently rather standardized Minoan “palace plan”:

(1) The plan developed gradually from such Early Minoan predecessors as the “House on the Hilltop” at Vasiliki or the settlement complex at Fournou Koriphi (Myrtos), both of EM IIB date. Intermediate between these and the fully developed plan of MM IB palaces such as those at Knossos and Phaistos would be buildings such as the partially preserved EM III monumental building at Knossos identified by Hood as a “proto-palace”.

(2) The plan was imported from abroad. Buildings which are as complex as the first Minoan palaces, which are somewhat earlier in date, and which share certain features with Minoan palaces are known at Beycesultan (southwest Anatolia), Mari (in northern Syria on the upper Euphrates), and Alalakh (also in northern Syria but nearer to the Mediterranean coast).

(3) The Minoan palatial form was the brainchild of a Cretan architectural genius, much as the pyramid in Egypt is known to have been the creation of Imhotep, the vizier of the Pharoah Zoser of the Third Dynasty who built the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

In deciding between these options, Graham noted that the truly distinctive features of Minoan palaces in particular and of Minoan architecture in general are not derived from architectural traditions current outside of Crete. Such distinctive features include: (a) the Minoan hall-forehall-lightwell combination (or “Men’s Hall”) (b) the pier-and-door partition (c) the lightwell (d) the use of alabaster veneering (e) the “Lustral Basin” or sunken bathroom (f) columns which taper downwards (g) columns with oval cross-sections (h) porticoed central courts (Mallia, Phaistos) (i) porticoes with alternating piers and columns (Mallia, Gournia) (j) monumental stairways (k) the placement of major public rooms on upper floors (Piano Nobile, banquet hall) (l) the door or gateway with a central column. In view of this and the fact that relatively little was known of EM culture when he wrote (Myrtos had yet to be excavated), Graham opted for the third of his hypotheses, the notion that the palatial form was due to a Cretan Imhotep.

The recent excavations at Mallia of a series of major but unconnected building complexes of the Old Palace period (“Agora”, “Hypostyle Crypt”, Quartier Mu: see handout on Middle Minoan Crete) may prove to be of considerable value in the historical reconstruction of how the Minoan palace evolved as a distinct architectural form. To be sure, these complexes belong chronologically to a period (MM IB-II) when full-fledged palaces were already in existence at Knossos and Phaistos. However, at Mallia, where the evidence for the existence of a true palace in the Protopalatial period is not secure at this point, these structures may represent a developmental stage at a major site preceding the construction of a unified palatial structure, a stage potentially comparable to the EM III or MM IA situation(s) at Knossos and Phaistos. In this stage, the various units later found incorporated within a single building, the palace, are dispersed over a broad area in quite distinct blocks. From a functional point of view, these various blocks together may constitute a palace but they have yet to be juxtaposed physically in an architectural unity. The theory that the Minoan palace arose in such a fashion, as the gradual piecing together of several distinct blocks, is hardly new. Evans proposed such a scenario over sixty years ago with reference to Knossos. Since the various architectural ensembles known as “palaces” resemble each other far more in terms of their constituent parts than they do as complete entities, the hypothetical process outlined above for their architectural evolution seems to make the best sense of the evidence at present available. Of course, the reconstruction of the process by which the form of the Minoan palace took shape is not at all the same as accounting for the rise of the social institutions which made such an architectural complex desirable or necessary (see handout on First Aegean Palaces). Moreover, concluding that smaller, functionally discrete blocks preceded the combination of those blocks into a larger architectural unity hardly explains how the individual blocks, quite complex architectural ensembles in and by themselves, were developed.

Aesthetic Considerations and Planning

About Minoan planning, Graham observes, “…the guiding principle in this planning of the quarters about the central court was not aesthetic – there is no attempt to arrange them symmetrically, for example – but practical. The efficient arrangement of these quarters in a well-coordinated whole evidently took precedence over any theoretically conceived architectural scheme;….” To this one might add a point stressed by McEnroe, namely that overall variety seems to have been as important a principle of Minoan architecture as does the repetition of modal units within it. That is, frequent as are such basic elements as lightwells, pillar crypts, lustral basins, Minoan halls, and so forth in both palaces and Neopalatial villas, the particular combinations of these elements into individual buildings are unique, whether they be extraordinarily complex structures (palaces) or relatively simple ones (villas).

The focus of a Minoan palace is clearly the central court. This focal point is a large open area surrounded by a large number of architectural blocks which tend to have specific and at the same time discrete functions. We have no unambiguous evidence which proves that the central court was used for large public gatherings, although it is possible that the Minoan sport (or ritual?) of bull-jumping took place there and assemblies of various kinds certainly could have also. Since the vast majority of activity within a Minoan palace on a day-to-day basis, however, almost certainly took place in the units surrounding the central court rather than in the court itself, we may justifiably term Minoan palatial architecture as basically “centrifugal”.

Most visitors to the palace at Knossos would have been steered by the major access routes through the small city surrounding it to the west court and would therefore first have confronted the building from the west across sufficient open space to be struck by three features in particular. First, they would have been impressed by the sheer size of the building, which in comparison to the area it covers is comparatively low, even squat. Second, the architecture of the palace is arranged in an irregularly stepped series of projecting rectanguloid masses resembling a compactly arranged pile of cardboard boxes of different sizes. This irregular contouring of the palace’s exterior is true both of its plan (especially of the west facade, but also of the remaining three facades of what is in effect a rectangular structure) and of its elevation, which would have featured flat roofs at a wide variety of distinct levels interrupted irregularly by the unroofed spaces over courts and lightwells. The sheer bulk of the building in the horizontal plane coupled with the irregularity of its exterior surfaces would have made it difficult for the visitor to obtain a quick impression of its true size. Rather, s/he, especially a prehistoric islander or Mainlander who was not used to seeing large-scale settlement architecture of any kind, would have perceived the building as having no borders, as being virtually limitless. Finally, perhaps to compensate for the irregularity of the building in three-dimensional terms, the construction of the west facade put heavy emphasis on horizontal lines (plinth, orthostate course capped by a large horizontal timber, row of windows at the same elevation in the second story) only partially counteracted by some vertical accents (corners of magazine blocks, recesses at centers of these blocks).

The Minoan use of vertical supports, whether columns, pillars, or piers, is quite distinct from later Classical practice. Greek and Roman architects preferred to multiply a given column type over fairly long expanses. Although there is some variation in the forms of Classical supports, they are almost invariably circular or square in plan, have either plain or vertically fluted shafts which taper upwards, and have capitals assignable to one or another of half-a-dozen basic types (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Pergamene, Tuscan, etc.). Minoan supports, on the other hand, may be round, oval, square, rectangular, or cruciform (including several variants under this one heading) in plan; the shaft may taper upwards or downwards; if not plain, these shafts may be decorated vertically or spirally, with flutes or with bulges; and, to judge from the surviving representations in frescoes and from their varicolored stone bases, the supports may have been colored in a variety of different ways as well. In view of this startling variety, one wonders what a real pier-and-door partition may have looked like – for no representations of these survive in Minoan pictorial art. Minoan supports are often used individually or in small groups; when employed in longcolonnades (as around the central courts), they are usually of alternating types [piers and columns (Mallia) or piers on stone bases of different heights (Phaistos)] rather than all the same. They did not provide a building with unity by their uniformity but rather attracted attention to distinct parts of a structure by their variety,either alone or in particular combinations.

Supplementary Observations

The highly variable situations of the known palaces preclude any simple generalization about where these enormous complexes were located in the natural landscape. Although most do not command their immediate surroundings, at least two (Phaistos, Galatas) are located at or near the ends of long ridges with splendid views out over the surrounding countryside of the Mesara and Pediada Plains, respectively, while the small palace at Petras has a similar sort of setting overlooking the north coast just to the east of modern Siteia.The palaces at Knossos and Gournia, on the other hand, sit on low hills which are overlooked by nearby ridges. The palace at Zakro lies at the lowest point in a small coastal plain and is dominated by hills to both north and south, over both of which spread the town at the core of which the palace lies. The palace at Kommos is similarly positioned, except that it lies at the southern end of the town to which it belongs. Mallia sites in what is today a very flat and relatively broad coastal plain, once again at the heart of the settlement that surrounds it; here, however, the local contours may have looked quite different in antiquity, with the result that the Malliote palace’s present appearance may be quite misleading.

All palaces have multiple entrances, most of which lead ultimately to the central court by way of corridors that usually take a few right-angled turns enroute from the palace’s exterior to its core. No entrance is specifically marked as the principal entrance; at both Mallia and Knossos, for instance, causeways lead to both the main north and west entrances, while at Mallia the south entrance is wider than either of the other two, while the east entrance leads most directly to the central court.

Circulation of light, air, and water by means of both open drains and closed conduits (i.e. piping) is a clear priority for the builders of these complexes. Concern for such circulation of the first two leads to a plethora of colonnades, lightwells, clerestories, pier-and-door partitions, and windows in these structures, while concern for circulation of the last has resulted in extraordinarily complex drainage systems.

As noted by D’Agata, Knossos is unique in displaying large specimens of “horns of consecration” in places of special prominence, such as in the West Court. Another feature that is above all typical of Knossos is the lavish decoration of the walls of the palace with figured wall-paintings on several different scales and in painted stucco relief as well as in two dimensions (see handout on Late Minoan Painting). Among the themes that are particularly at home in the frescoes of the Knossian palace are depictions of processions and of bull sports (i.e. bull-jumping, bull-grappling, catching of bulls in nets, etc.).

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